America’s war on Vietnam may have officially ended 40 years ago, but the Southeast Asian country is still battling with the horrific legacy that the US military bequeathed. Yet last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry, while in Hanoi, eulogised about how the two countries are «healing» and forging a new«partnership».
Kerry was speaking on the 20th anniversary of «normalising ties» between the US and Vietnam that began in August 1995, more than 20 years after the war’s end.
«It took us 20 more years to move from healing to building. Think of what we can accomplish in the 20 years to come», said Kerry.
The American diplomat’s blithe account of «healing to building» belies the ongoing horror for some three million Vietnamese who live with the poisonous legacy of US war on that country. That number is about the same as the total of Vietnamese who died during the war from American saturation bombing and ground war.
Between 1961 and 1972 – three years before the war ended – the US military dropped a total of 20 million gallons of highly toxic herbicides on what was then South Vietnam. The New York Times reported the affected area was «about the size of Massachusetts» or some 27,300 square kilometres. That equates to over 15 per cent of the total territory of what was then South Vietnam.
The most well known of these defoliating chemicals was Agent Orange, which the Americans sprayed on forests and croplands from aircrafts and river navy boats, with the alleged purpose of denying tree cover and food supplies to the South Vietnamese insurgents of the Vietcong.
According to the Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA): «More than 3 million people in Vietnam still suffer from the after-effects of the defoliant. In 2012, a baby was reported to have suffered health problems related to the defoliant, meaning a fourth generation of victims had emerged.»
VAVA’s vice president Tran Xuan Thu says that as long as victims continue to suffer and new cases emerge then, «The war has still not ended».
The health impacts from the US chemical spraying across southern Vietnam include a litany of cancers, tumours, neoplasms, skin diseases and congenital birth defects.
Tran Thi Le Huyen, who is now 29, was born more than 10 years after the war’s end in 1975. She lives near Da Nang in central Vietnam from where the US military ran its main Agent Orange flights, known as Operation Ranch Hand. Tran has been bedridden since birth crippled from her twisted, emaciated legs. Her mother said: «We have visited various hospitals, but there was no place that offered any treatment».
Danish citizen Bente Peterson, who directed VAVA detoxification projects for nearly 10 years up to 2013, recalled to this author innumerable cases of whole families destroyed by poisoning from Agent Orange. She remembered one tragic Vietnamese war veteran in particular who raised three sons only to watch all of them die from different cancers.
Proportionate to population, the number of Agent Orange victims in Vietnam today would be the equivalent of some 10 million Americans suffering from similar life-threatening diseases. While thousands of US military veterans who also succumbed to Agent Orange toxicity have received chemical companies (Monsanto, Dow) that manufactured the herbicide, the Vietnamese people have never obtained any reparation from Washington. Class-action suits brought by Vietnamese victims have repeatedly been rejected in US courts, the latest being in 2009 by the US Supreme Court, even though these same courts ruled in favour of American veterans receiving compensation as far back as 1984.
Washington maintains that its use of herbicides in Vietnam were not knowingly targeting civilian populations. Therefore, it claims, Agent Orange was not used as a chemical weapon. But that seems like cynical word play when millions of acres of crops and forests were indiscriminately sprayed, with the full knowledge that the wider population would be contaminated. Also, industrial analysis showed as far back as 1957 that the herbicides used by the American military in Vietnam contained traces of highly toxic and carcinogenic dioxin. Under public pressure over the health dangers voiced by US scientists and the citizens’ anti-war movement, the Agent Orange operation was officially cancelled in 1972.
In 2012, the US Congress finally earmarked some $40 million for cleaning up toxic areas in Vietnam. Whether the full money is actually delivered is another point. A more realistic financial cost for the clean-up across Vietnam would be in the billions – and that is not including the billions more that would be required for proper medical treatment of victims. So far, the former US air base at Da Nang has undergone partial detoxification of its soil and nearby waterways. But there are dozens of other so-called dioxin «hot spots» scattered across southern Vietnam and adjacent to the borders with Cambodia and Laos.
Phung Tuu Boi of the Vietnam Forestry Science and Technology Association, which has been involved in replanting mangroves and upland areas destroyed by the American defoliation, says: «Centuries will be needed to restore the destroyed environment».
Forty years after devastating Vietnam, its people and environment, Washington’s «clean-up» assistance appears like a mere drop in the 55-gallon drums it used to drop Agent Orange on that country. It is woefully inadequate reparation for the millions of victims and generations of suffering children to come.
A closer reading of the Vietnamese press reports on John Kerry’s visit last week reveals the bigger US concern. Kerry might have talked about «healing» but he reportedly said very little about the plight of war victims or what Washington should provide in direct medical aid. Of more importance to the US secretary of state was apparently the desire to implement the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 other Southeast Asian nations. Vietnam is seen as key to the US cementing the TPP, which pointedly excludes China from the trade pact.
Kerry also told Vietnamese political leaders that Washington was moving towards lifting restrictions on arms exports to Vietnam, and he emphatically reiterated America’s support for the country in its territorial maritime disputes with China.
The belated American moves to help detoxify its legacy in Vietnam first began in 2011 when Hillary Clinton was the US Secretary of State. That move also coincided with the «Pivot to Asia» policy under President Obama when Washington signalled that it would henceforth be targeting China as a top geopolitical rival. Since then, tensions between Washington and Beijing have steadily escalated.
So, when Kerry talks about how Vietnam and the US need to quickly move from «healing to building partnership» we can safely deduce that America’s real objective is to enlist Vietnam in its geopolitical calculations against China.
Vietnam’s leadership may be flattered by preferential trade concessions and supply of US warships. But, just as the millions of Agent Orange victims testify, the purported partnership with Washington will prove to be a toxic relationship.